This coming Saturday night’s Nationwide Series race at Gateway International Raceway will probably be the last. It’s good to see that the potential sale of the track has some folks there optimistic, but honestly, when the asking price from Dover Motorsports is suspected to be just $1 million, it seems more probable that the track may be sold to a land developer and turned into a mall.
The reason for the loss of Gateway from the Nationwide Series schedule, despite the protests from drivers and some fans, is simple economics. They aren’t drawing squat. If Gateway had been holding Cup races on the same weekends when the Nationwide circus came to town, things might have been different. But as much as Cup series attendance is sinking, it’s far worse for the Nationwide Series. At one point, after a power failure forced Nationwide and Craftsman Truck series races to be held during the day, the attendance was so dismal that any kind of argument to keep racing there would have been difficult.
With an at-track audience dwindling and never really showing any potential in the first place, the track must now compete with one on the other side of the state, a venue in Kansas which has just been handed another Cup race. Despite the fact that Gateway could tout that people can see Cup drivers much more cheaply on their track, this was probably a factor in the decision to not request events held there.
It’s truly a shame, because Gateway is a unique venue that puts on a decent show much of the time. Well, maybe not quite unique… it is similar in layout to Darlington, just without the gritty tire-eating surface and wacky banking that gives crew chiefs fits. But it is still a sort of driver’s track, requiring concentration and sometimes a little shoving, as Brad and Carl demonstrated earlier this year.
One of the disappearing Gateway races will be headed to Iowa Speedway, while the other race as far as I can tell is not going to be replaced in a 34-race 2011 schedule. The schedule probably needs to be shorter in times like these, and Iowa Speedway is a fantastic venue (ironically designed by Rusty Wallace, who hails from the St. Louis area where Gateway is located). So in the grand scheme of things, as far as quality of venues and racing go, it isn’t a total loss. Gateway to Iowa isn’t even a net loss. Ideally a Gateway fan would like to see the place at least host one event on the schedule, so at least it is of some comfort that isn’t being replaced by Michigan or Kansas.
For whatever reason, NASCAR never gave Cup races to Gateway. The lack of a Cup event makes for challenging conditions for a big-time racing venue; when the economy goes into a downturn, it’s nearly impossible. StlToday.com reported that since Dover Motorsports had taken over the track, it lost money with each event.
The Nationwide Series has taken a beating to the point of almost not being viable. Like the Cup series, there are a multitude of reasons for this problem. You could argue that people don’t see it as a separate development series anymore. Given that Justin Allgaier may not be racing on television next season, there is probably some truth to that.
More likely the Nationwide Series has suffered from the decline that the Cup Series itself has taken. It’s fair to say that NASCAR alienated a large part of their fan base. That hardcore fan base would likely be much more interested in the sport’s possible up-and-coming stars than someone looking for something during halftime would. Some people might be interested in seeing Carl Edwards or Kyle Busch race anywhere, but casual fans aren’t going to watch two races a weekend for long.
What’s disturbing about the trend is that Gateway is a unique, colorful track that is now no longer viable as a NASCAR venue. When things were going well for NASCAR, it moved the Cup races out of Rockingham and North Wilkesboro, and removed one race from Darlington. At the Cup level at least, as the stock in the sport declines and certain tracks no longer draw, we haven’t seen either track come back to the schedule – only a move from speedways to speedways.
If the sport continues to decline, what is next? If Dover Motorsports keeps having financial struggles, will they sell Dover to Bruton Smith, which would seemingly surrender the track’s dates to Vegas or another SMI speedway? What about Martinsville? Every single time the new schedule is in the works, the paper clip is always said to be in danger. We’ve lost Milwaukee and now Gateway on the Nationwide schedule, but Texas, Vegas, Chicago, and Michigan appear to be safe.
It’s understandable why Gateway is forfeiting its races, but it is still unfortunate, and it speaks to a larger issue. With NASCAR losing revenue, the Nationwide Series seems like it’s taking the biggest hit. And tracks that struggle in the best of times can’t work with that, no matter how exciting the racing may be on television.
Here’s hoping some more Iowas get built.
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